I was planning once a blog post to practice answers to questions I could expect about this past year upon my return. How was your year? What was your favorite part? Your least favorite part? Would you do it again? In the two weeks I've been back now, those questions have not yet been posed to me. Okay, maybe by a few close relatives, but that's it.
Conversations about the past year have proceeded along two paths. If fellow conversant was aware of my most recent whereabouts, their first question was "Are you glad to be back?" or something on similar lines. If fellow conversant was not aware of my activities, they would ask about how I've been since we last saw one another. Once Kenya and Indonesia came up in my response, they would ask "Are you glad to be back?" or something on similar lines.
In both situations, my reply was the same: "Yeah, life is easy again." It still surprises me to hear this. It was not some specific American pleasure. My daydreams weren't of hopping shows all afternoon at a multiplex or a two-egg omelette filled with sautéed, fine diced celery and onions. When we bought the tickets and the flight out was temporally nearer than the flight in, when the Children's Office demanded another bribe, when KPLC cut the power, when I was exhausted beyond measure, my only wish was for the easy life in American again.
I guess the answer has surprised people. More than a few have paused before pushing on, and I've had once to fill in the following explanation to bring the talk back to pace. I worked hard this past year. My days in Nakuru started at 5:30 in the morning when I would wake up the boys and prepare them for school. Assuming there was no trouble in giving out pens and exercise books and no one was sick, the last of them would leave a little after 7. I would start my computer and the Internet at this time to check for priority email before a director's meeting to discuss the day ahead. Most days I would have to leave the center for a few hours to meet with school teachers or withdraw money from the bank or visit our lawyer. When I got back, normally around lunchtime, I would still have to complete a minimum of four hours of online work, stuff like volunteer recruitment, newsletter and media, all the behind-the-scenes work necessary to keep the Foundation a viable international organization. By the time those hours were done, the rest of the children had come back, and there was no rest in tutoring, disciplining, monitoring, playing with them until 8 when we locked them in their dorms. I would have an hour break before walking by the dorms once more to make sure lights out was observed. I was well exhausted by then. No problem I was working over seventy hours every week.
With no children living at the Bali center and only a computer class or two to teach in the afternoons, life in Indonesia was easier. I devoted most of my hours then to online work and could actually keep to the required eight a day. Not that the stress was much better. Something was always going wrong somewhere. A center hadn't budgeted appropriately and needed more money for some emergency. Not enough new director applications were coming in. Someone didn't follow protocol in contacting sponsors. Always something. If there was not some fire that needed extinction, there was another fire that needed ignition. By that time I was one of the senior volunteers with the Foundation and carried a lot of responsibility to deal with these. Feeling as though the whole thing is going to come down around your ears without immediate action on your part is not the greatest thing for your emotional health.
Maybe those I speak with imagine life in the developing world as something more relaxed and outside the frenzy that so many Americans exist in. Perhaps they imagine Kenyan days spent on the savanna from sunrise to sunset and Indonesian weeks with spare hours not spent on the beach or in the ocean. Within such a dream, the only joy they can imagine in coming back is a return to modern conveniences: high-pressure shower heads with reliable hot water, flush toilets, air conditioning and all the rest. Yeah, those things are nice, and I certainly did miss them when the water in Kenya only ran three out of four days or when I was grasping with my fingertips at the cross bar on the door to keep my balance over the pit toilet, but I got used to them. They weren't that big of a deal after a month or two.
Frankl wrote in Man's Search for Meaning that concentration camp prisoners who once slept in fine beds with only their wives soon adapted to sharing slats with as many as seven others, many of them snoring, under a single thin blanket. The centers were no death camps, and I adapted as well. Spend too much time in a nation where people can convince themselves that a decision with regard to the design and material of their flatware is of importance and you can forget what you really need. But I will always take the country where more people have to make that choice than whether to pay the rent or for groceries that week.